My Love Affair with Colombia: Celebrating its Music and Independence

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I admit it — before I lost my job a few years ago in the bad economy and bought a one-way ticket to South America, there were only 2 things I knew about Colombian music: Shakira and salsa music. After backpacking for 5 months through the continent, ending in Colombia, I so fell in love with the country and the people that I returned a second time the same year. I not only came away with an appreciation for a beautiful country which has gotten an undeserved bad rap because of its history of civil war and drug violence, I also made wonderful new friends for life.

Colombia today is flourishing and it’s a land of great beauty, history, culture, fashion, art, music, dance and creativity and we are influenced by Colombia here. For example, CicLAvia, the quaterly event to reclaim LA’s streets from car traffic so people can enjoy the urban landscape on foot and bicycles, was started in Bogota.

posterColombianos are at the top of my list of the most warm, generous and friendly people I’ve ever met in my life. I traveled using the CouchSurfing online travel network and met and stayed with so many wonderful local people, who showed me a genuine experience of Colombia, not a touristy one. One in particular, Carol, is a graphic designer who works for the city government in Medellin. If  you travel there, the beautiful map of its brilliant metro system is her handiwork. I met Carol through the  and she took time out to take me on many tours of the ‘Eternal City of Spring’. After I returned to the US, being fellow music lovers, we’ve kept in touch on Facebook by sharing new music discoveries with each other and thanks to her, I’ve been so enriched with the diversity of Colombian music!

Aterciopelados, a collaboration between vocalist/guitarist Andrea Echeverri and bassist/arranger Héctor Buitrago, have been playing since the 1990s as one of Colombia’s first rock bands and amid that era of civil war and violence, their music has always been socially conscious. They’ve been honored by the UN for their work promoting peace and they speak out about such issues as injustice, women’s rights and the environment. Echeverri, who’s also an accomplished ceramic artist, is an impassioned feminist whose recent solo work denounces sexist machismo culture, war and environmental damage.

Another prolific artist and passionate activist who’s also been playing since the 90s is Juanes. Juanes has been honored around the world for his tireless efforts to raise awareness about the impact of land mines, holding peace concerts and supporting indigenous rights. He won the 2013 Grammy for Best Latin Album. And if love ballads are your thing, no one is more recognized in Colombia than Andres Cepeda.

In 1992, a UK DJ/producer Richard Blair was assigned to work on an album by Totó la Momposina, a distinguished singer of Afro-Colombian and indigenous heritage, who’s been performing since the 60s and touring globally to introduce the world to traditional Colombian music. She’s the 4th generation of musicians in her family and has dedicated her life to preserving the culture and traditions of music and dance of the northern Caribbean coastal area.

Blair was so intrigued by the mix of Afro-Colombian and Latin sounds of her music, what started as a short trip turned into a 3 year stay in Colombia immersing himself in the music and combining it with reggae/dancehall and electronic dance music like dub and drum and bass. The band he created there, Sidestepper, would be one of the first to introduce the Electro Cumbia sound and featured guest musicians who would later go on to be part of emerging bands like Bomba Estereo and ChocQuibTown. I recently featured remixes by Sidestepper and Bomba Estereo.

ChocQuibTown is a Latin Grammy winning hip hop trio named after the Choco region of the Pacific coast, where the majority of people are descendents of African slaves & indigenous and are the most marginalized & impoverished in the country. The group uses their socially conscious music to educate mainstream Colombia and the world about the “Africa inside Colombia”.

Bomba Estereo evolved from a collective of musicians who were inspired by bands like Sidestepper and they take the fusion of traditional Colombian rhythms of cumbia and salsa with modern dance beats even further! I’ve seen them many times and keyboardist Simón Mejía, singer Liliana Saumet, drummer Kike Egurrola and guitarist Julián Salazar create fire on stage with their electro tropical sound and psychedelic indie-pop!

Both of these bands have gone on to garner huge international recognition and there are many more great emerging talents from Colombia like Esteman, who rose from obscurity with his viral Internet song about Facebook. Monsieur Periné, is an experimental neo-swing band I immediately fell in love with when they performed here last year at the Levitt Pavilion summer concert series. They are such a fun, spontaneous band with colorful costumes designed by lead singer Catalina García. Paula Arenas is  a very new face in the independent Colombian music scene, having trained classically as a pianist and infusing jazz and pop into her music.

There is so much more great talent from all over the country I couldn’t possibly cover but here’s a great collaboration of over 80 Colombian artists titled “La Tierra Del Olvido” (The Land of The Forgotten), organized by Playing for Change Foundation, as a hopeful message Colombia is healing and moving on from its past conflict into a bright future.

Today, Saturday, July 20, is Colombian Independence Day and if you want to celebrate with the large, warm Colombian community here in Los Angeles, come to the Celebrando la Independencia Colombiana party at La Cita Bar in downtown on Saturday, July 20 and the 7th Annual Festival Colombiano, the largest South American event on the west coast on Sunday, July 21!

I’ll leave you with salsa and cumbia, the Latin rhythms and dances that started my romance with Colombia. Coming full circle from my travels there, I host CouchSurfers on my couch here in LA, and the 1st song is by Ramón. I hosted him and his girlfriend, Maude, a wonderful couple from Montreal, Canada, where he is spreading the positive Colombian and Latin vibes with his band Ramón y Su Son. Viva Colombia!

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